What did Karl Marx think of prostitutes?
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At a campaign event in Brockton, Mass. on Wednesday, a heckler called Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren "a socialist whore." What did the founders of socialism think of prostitution?
They didn't like it. Karl Marx viewed prostitutes as victims of the capitalist system. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, he described sex work as being “only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the laborer,” and viewed the abolition of prostitution as a necessary part of ending capitalism. Similarly, in The Communist Manifesto, he called prostitution the "complement" of the bourgeois family, and predicted that both institutions would one day vanish. Still, some have used Marxist theory (especially as found in his later writing) to defend prostitution not as the buying and selling of bodies but rather as the selling of a service.
Marx’s friend and fellow revolutionary Friedrich Engels also opposed prostitution as something that dehumanized both the women who sold themselves and the men who hired them. Echoing the position of early French socialist Charles Fourier, Engels argued that marriage itself could be considered a form of prostitution. In his treatise on The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, he wrote that within the capitalist class system a “marriage of convenience turns often enough into a marriage of prostitution—sometimes for both partners but far more commonly for the woman.” Lenin acknowledged the human thirst for sex, but found the institution of sex work similarly distasteful.
Many communist revolutions have resulted in immediate and widespread crackdowns on prostitution, though prostitution has always persisted. In pre-Soviet Russia, thousands of registered sex-workers were tolerated under regulation by the Tsarist government. The Bolshevik revolution led to a crackdown, but even in the barter economy of War communism, women ended up trading sexual favors for food, protection, and other goods. Similarly, most prostitution was eliminated in Cuba after the revolution, but it soon returned in force.
Prostitution persists in Communist countries today, even though it is generally illegal. The collapse of the Soviet Union, and its deleterious effect on the economies of communist countries abroad, has led to increased prostitution in both current and former communist nations. In Cuba, both male and female prostitutes are a prominent feature of jineterismo, or the practice of catering to tourists in the black market. In Vietnam (officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam), prostitution remains common, despite being viewed as bourgeois. Prostitution is officially illegal in North Korea, but occurs in the black market. Kim Jong-Il himself is thought to maintain hundreds of prostitutes as part of the government’s Gippeumjo, or “Pleasure Brigade.”
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Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. He writes for Explainer and Brow Beat, and lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter.